What Can Feminism & St. Petersburg Tell Us About Aging Gracefully?

First of all I have to apologize for not posting past two weeks. I have been in St. Petersburg, thoroughly enchanted by its charm and magic and probably more than a little bit light headed from the change in atmospheric pressure that has given me headaches and a brain fog although that could have also been the result of too much chocolate, too many sweet pastries and too much beer (I heard even the Finns pop over regularly to drink the abundant cheap beer). I have ignored all dietary discipline in the face of the amazing Russian cuisine. I find St Pete’s less intimidating to negotiate than Moscow and there are so many affordable little cafes and local restaurants serving great food to explore.

Photo Lesley Agams

Photo Lesley Agams

It’s been a welcome getaway and happened at the right time, I love Moscow but the contradictions of the glitzy big megalopolis were beginning to get to me. Shiny new tall skyscrapers dominate the skyline and overpower the quaint old architecture remaining in the city centre and contrast sharply with the project like working class residential developments on the outskirts of the city. Moscow is obsessed with youth, beauty, power, money and status and I was beginning to feel a little like creaky Soviet era infrastructure; in need of a drastic make over.

I found myself obsessing about my aging looks and body even more than usual. I’ve spent my life repeating the feminist mantra about beauty, that it doesn’t matter as much as your character and personality and your inner beauty, whatever that was, a beautiful liver maybe? Feminism and the middle class women I grew up with told me a pre-occupation with looks was superficial. Naomi Wolff famously called it the Beauty Myth in 1994 and said it was the patriarchy’s way of undermining the newly empowered women folk. We were commanded to resist objectification at all costs.

We were taught to disdain our looks as well as models, actresses, courtesans, sex workers, strippers – women who lived off their looks and their bodies were traitors to feminism, still enslaved to the patriarchy. We were told to develop and exploit our intellect and our brains; we were encouraged to acquire more knowledge, to get a degree, or two or three, gain skills that would make us financially independent of men. We were encouraged to work hard and build careers and resumes in law, business, economics, engineering, sciences and public service.

We were reminded that for every Cindy Crawford and Julia Roberts there are hundreds and thousands of unknown exploited models and actresses who are little more than sex slaves and prostitutes. What we aren’t always told is that for every Sheryl Sandberg and Folorunso Alakija there are also hundreds and thousands of unknown exploited and sexually harassed female workers and secretaries. And while feminism made it a gender battlefront there are also hundreds and thousands of men that will never become a Bill Gates or an Aliko Dangote, so I kind of question the analogy now.

I did feel frustrated as a young woman when my looks overshadowed what I said, what I achieved and made me the target of constant sexual harassment. I looked forward to aging; I thought people would stop focusing on my face and my boobs and focus on my ideas. Like other women I thought I would finally be appreciated for the content of my character (or maybe my beautiful pancreas) but few people really look that deep. So after a lifetime of attention (whether welcome or not) I’m surprised to be routinely dismissed before I even have a chance to open my mouth.

Men gain respect as they age, while older women are dismissed unless they are rich and powerful and they are still less influential than men the same age and social status.  In Moscow this dynamic is especially evident. “Sexism runs rampant in Russia and women’s rights appear nowhere on the political agenda.”  The society is conservative and women’s role is primarily defined as domestic and sexual. Post-communist feminism is confined to the intelligentsia and  the situation of women in Russia remains appalling even by Nigerian standards where we have a vibrant and vocal women’s rights movement that goes back many decades and even in pre-colonial history, makes me proud to be a Nigerian woman.

Moscow magnified my unacknowledged insecurities about aging. Despite the feminist slogans, my focus on character, personality and career development and my whining about ‘the curse of beauty’ I  recognized the attention and privilege it gave me even if I didn’t shamelessly or even prudently exploit it. I mindlessly delighted in it with all the naïve nonchalance of youth; you take it for granted when you have it. Moscow is a city for the trendy, the young and the beautiful where everybody is trying to stay trendy, young and beautiful much like the city itself.

St. Petersburg on the other hand is old, beautiful, historic and cultural. There are 420 museums in the city; and if you are beginning to feel like a museum you will feel right at home. The city centre is a UNESCO World Heritage site; ALL its buildings are from the 18th and 19th century, some beautifully maintained and some crumbling apart but most of them still functional. It’s an old city frozen in a time warp and it makes aging seem graceful and amazing and special. It has also makes you really appreciate how much maintenance old things require, not just to keep them functional but to keep them beautiful.

Youth and beauty matter don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, it is a fact of life, you cannot argue with millions of years of evolution, biology and psychology. It opens doors, it creates more choices and options, and that’s what feminism is about so don’t ignore and devalue them in yourself or in others. Sure we want girls to see themselves as more than just their looks and their sexuality but there is nothing essentially wrong in appreciating and intelligently exploiting them either. Beauty is not a curse, despite the recurring patriarchal message, ancient and modern. It’s what we make of it.

The difference between Moscow and St. Petersburg as I’ve come think of it (and Moscow is even older than St. Petersburg) is ‘the balance between caring for oneself, having pride in one’s appearance and investing too much of oneself in that outward manifestation.’ Or the difference between Cher and Tina Turner; you can try desperately to stay new, young and shiny forever or you can surrender to the rich patina of a well maintained old age.

 

(Addendum September 30, 2013 – A Double Standard of Aging by Susan Sontag 1972, powerful articulation that I didn’t read till after writing this. I’m not surprised so little has changed even while a lot has changed. Men seem to be as caught up in the maintenance game now as women and its gratifying to note that women are developing themselves in different more life enhancing and self realizing ways. Still the same double standards exist and are just as burdensome and poisonous)

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